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Introductory Essay

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. I’m on my way out of the door until these words stop me dead in my tracks. I quickly check the time and find that it is 11:58AM. I hurriedly mute my phone, while cutting off the mu’adhin mid-verse, and continue getting ready, telling myself that I will pray afterwards. 

I am driving down Ford Road in my hometown of Dearborn Heights, Michigan. I look out of the passenger side window as I pass hundreds of different restaurants and buildings. A particular one catches my eye – the Islamic Center of America. This is one of the oldest and largest mosques on the continent. I look at it for a few seconds until the next “big” thing catches my eye. Tomorrow I will go down this street again and this same action will be repeated. 

My parents have pushed me to make it a goal of mine to start memorizing the Quran. I’ve gone to Arabic school every Saturday since I was 6 years old in order to do just this. There, my teacher asks me to recite back to her the verses I’ve practiced during the week. I start with “bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” and begin reciting verses with meanings that I do not comprehend. I am not entirely sure why I start with that phrase, but I do it anyways because that’s what I’ve been taught. 

As a practicing Muslim, I’ve experienced all of these scenarios multiple times throughout my life. These occurrences are all a result of being plagued by the same state of emotion: mindlessness. Before taking this class, I had almost been considering Islam as a religion of routine rather than one of beauty. I would hear the same few phrases everyday in the adhan, see the same mosque, and robotically repeat the same verses in the Quran. I did these things out of tradition – nothing more. 

With Professor Ali Asani’s Multisensory Religion class, these views all changed. I no longer was listening to the adhan as a signal to pray, but rather I was analyzing its words and poetic-like structure to see how it resonates with Muslims in their daily lives. Mosques were no longer looked at as just pretty buildings for a moment, but were carefully examined for their choice of architecture, use of geometric shapes, and application of calligraphy that spans the walls throughout. Furthermore, Quran recitation became more than just senselessly uttering some words, but instead we learned about differences between recitation techniques and focused in on several verses in this holy book while evaluating the beauty within the words and their meanings. The class made me do something I hadn’t previously done; it made me actually think and look at Islam through this very unique artistic lens.

Along with my own questions that have come about due to viewing Islam with a different perspective such as why do Muslims do what they do and what does it mean to them, Professor Asani also posed several concepts to us throughout the course that have affected my understanding of this religion as well. For example, there was a heavy emphasis on ideas including that the word “Islamic” is not synonymous with the word “Arab” and it was stressed that Islam does not “tell” anyone to do anything; people do things in the name of Islam. However, to me, the most important question we explored was “what is the ‘correct’ Islam.” 

All around the world, there are millions of people who interpret Islam in their own way. Whether it be because of sectarian divides, belonging to different schools of thoughts, or solely because of the integration of culture into their faith, there is a wide variety of viewpoints on how Islam should be practiced. For this reason, Islam has became a religion that is constantly evolving and is influenced by all of these varying perspectives. Many times throughout the course, I had to stop and assess how my interpretation of this religion differed from those we learned about in class. Why do these groups of people pray in a way different than I do? How come they consider a specific practice mandatory to their faith when I haven’t even heard of it before? This made me ponder about what truly is the “right” Islam and who determines it.  

After completing this course, I have come to the realization that there is no “right” Islam. This religion is not and never will be defined by just one thing or one way of practice. The Five Pillars of this faith, including the shahada (the declaration that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger), praying, fasting, zakat (alms), and hajj (pilgrimage), are about the only beliefs that are unanimously agreed upon. Everything beyond this is continually debated amongst Muslims around the world. Each Muslim practices their faith based on how they’ve been exposed to it and how they interpret all scriptures. As a result, Islam is a compilation of all these beliefs. This understanding has now fully allowed me to identify what is encapsulated by Islam and what is not. With so many components to Islam, the religion is complex in nature and my creative projects focus on this complexity. They reveal differing aspects of Islam by concentrating on mini themes throughout the course and in various ways, represent how my understanding of this religion, in which I consider myself an adherent of, has changed. 

My first project was the Asmaa al-Husna poem. By bringing up ten out of the ninety-nine names of Allah, its verses are meant to comment on the greatness of God and what gifts and blessings result from becoming one of His loved ones. This poem contains the overarching theme in Islam of the unknown nature of God and His love. Islam condemns giving God a humanly figure or describing Him with physical features. This is because His greatness, power, and love for all believers cannot be limited to a few words as it is unmatched. The ninety-nine names of God serve the purpose of allowing believers to get a glimpse of this all-knowing figure in which they trust and providing them hope as they understand whom they are praying to and what will they get out of it should they follow the core values.

The Ahl il Kitab, or Family of the Book, is a phrase commonly mentioned in the Quran and refers to followers of all Abrahamic faiths. Whereas there is a huge misconception about the stance on people belonging to other faiths in Islam, the Quran actually preaches acceptance and tolerance towards all. In my second project, I made a video that is a compilation of pictures of mosques all around the world that are built right next to other places of worship (e.g. churches and synagogues) and is designed to highlight the Islamic values of coexistence and the high regard for all of the Prophets who are seen as different holy figures in the other Abrahamic faiths.

In the final portion of my first creative portfolio set, I included a drawing of a Muslim living in a modern western city that underlines the relevance of the mi’raj, Muhammad’s journey and ascencion into the heavens on the buraq. This quest is where Muhammad received word that Muslims need to pray five salat a day. My sketch is meant to convey the importance of giving thanks to Allah. The Muslim stops in the middle of the road in order to complete the prayer ritual on time. It also refers back to another theme seen in class: dhikr. Although dhikr is a Sufi practice that revolves around the repetition of the word God, ultimately, it has the same purpose that prayer does: remembrance of Allah. 

The fourth project I made for my creative responses was a compilation of mini segments from interviews I conducted with Muslim women that attend Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or live in Dearborn Heights. The purpose of these interviews was to ask about their opinions on the headscarf. Each woman defended the veil and spoke very highly of it, regardless of whether they wore it or not. They explained what they believe is the importance of it and how beautiful of a symbol it is. This verified that the scarf being oppressive is simply a misconception; whereas it may be true for some Muslims around the world, most women are not forced to put on a veil and instead choose to wear it out of love for what it represents. 

Another project I made focused primarily on a quote from the Quran. These words are incredibly imporant in Islam since they are believed to be the words of Allah. In Arabic calligraphy, I, with the help of a friend, wrote out the Quranic verse 196 from Surah Al-Imran. This verse directly translates to “And their Lord responded to them, ‘Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another…’” This project was meant to refute yet another misinterpretation of Islam: the idea that Islam distinguishes betwen men and women. Similar to the ideas of how the scarf oppresses women, there is a common argument that Islam in general is mysoginistic. This class taught me something that I wanted to portray in one of my blog posts: there is no better way to learn about Islam than to read and interpret the Quran directly. This Quranic verse exhibits that, regardless of gender, God gifts and punishes individuals the same. 

My sixth and final project is one close to me as it is a photograph taken of a mosque near my home. This mosque stands out very well from other mosques as it has a completely contrasting appearance. Without a dome or large minarets, this holy building looks more like a church than it does a mosque. However, the message is that a mosque is not made up by its physical presentation but by its function. A mosque exists to give Muslims a place to practice their religion in peace. Distinctions between people are negligible once it comes to places of worship; all are welcome to devote time to their God. This mosque expresses this idea and challenges the concept of what a “traditional mosque” must look like.

My blog posts embody some of the main themes I have taken from this course. From recognizing misconceptions to becoming aware about important practices throughout distinct Muslim communities, I have now confirmed that this religion is contained with love, tolerance, remembrance of God, liberation, equality, and diversity, as shown in each of my projects respectively. Before this class, I had been approaching Islam as if it was all just a pattern – I would hear the same adhan, see the same mosques, and pray the same salat. However, taking a step back to analyze and think more deeply about all of these small details by creating my portfolio has allowed me to appreciate this religion for its aesthetic beauty. In addition, it has given me a chance to comprehend the significance of perceiving a religion through an artistic lens. I realize now there is so much more to this multidimensional religion. I hope that while reading through my blog, others will also gain the same love I have acquired for Islam in this interesting, creative angle.